The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Old King Brady Mysteries (1885-1912)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Old King Brady Mysteries were created by “A New York Detective” and began with “Old King Brady, the Sleuth-Hound" (The New York Detective Library no. 154, Nov. 14, 1885). “A New York Detective” was one of the pseudonyms of Francis Worcester Doughty. Doughty (1850-1917) was and is likely the best-known American writer of dime novels, and next to Frederic van Rensselaer Dey the best dime novel writer. Although Doughty’s work suffered from being written on a deadline, it is generally far more intelligent and imaginative than the work of other dime novel writers. Doughty was also an important numismatist.
“Old King Brady” was one of the earliest recurring dime novel detectives and one of the longest-lasting, appearing in around 830 stories in four magazines.
Hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of the “superhuman detective” [see: The Old Sleuth Mysteries], publisher Frank Tousey decided to publish his own variant, Old King Brady…Tousey observed his own sales figures with the first three years of the New York Detective Library and noted that the stories which featured a detective who was as physical as he or she was cerebral outsold those stories which featured the more traditional Classical Detective. In addition, Tousey witnessed the same growing tendency in competing dime novel fiction titles.1
James “Old King” Brady is a tall, muscular man, around forty years old, of Irish descent. He becomes famous as the “New York Detective,” a nickname he is given by clients who believe he is the “king” of the profession. Although Brady is based in New York City he does not limit himself to New York, going across the United States on various cases. He is particularly active in the Old West, pursuing Billy the Kid and, in thirty-one separate stories, Frank & Jesse James (see: The James Brothers Adventures). As is often the case with dime novel characters, Brady is not well-defined or given dimensions beyond the usual for dime novel detectives. But Doughty and the other authors of the Brady stories did add unusual characteristics to him. In the words of one early story:
Old King Brady does no theorizing from slender clews. He wields no magnifying glass. False whiskers seldom disguise his strong features. He is a poor shot, and cannot even swim. He proceeds in a common way, just as a real detective would, with plenty of leg work, a bit of good old Irish luck, and a liberal use of stool-pigeons. When captured by the villains, and in dire peril of his life, he does not defy the scoundrels in high sounding dime novel dialogue. Indeed, he begs for his life, often in pretty abject terms, too.2
Brady is a former policeman and his methods are similar to those of real police detectives; there is nothing of the Great Detective in him. Brady is persistent rather than insightful. He questions the usual suspects, examines crime scenes and victims’ bodies, and uses leg-work and common sense. He is extremely strong and is good with his fists, which he is often called upon to use. He is Catholic, a rarity among heroic dime novel characters. On occasion (often when the story’s author wants to resolve a difficult plot point) Brady displays a “mystic” or “intuitive” gift, supposedly a part of his Irish heritage, for discovering who the true criminals are. Unusually, the New York City of the Old King Brady stories is a realistic and recognizable city which is quite unlike the pulp urban fantasyland of the Nick Carter stories (see: The Nick Carter Mysteries):
Doughty was known for his detailed and accurate settings. When he was unsure of a particular detail, he employed hundreds of maps and reference books to establish the correct situation or location. In the first Brady story, Doughty detailed the New York milieu with craft, from Broadway to lower Manhattan. The sense of the vast and dangerous city, most often thought to be the creation of the Hard-Boiled writers, was created by Doughty some 25 years before the first Black Mask “mean street.”3
One of Brady’s main concerns is to help the innocent. He values this almost as much as he does punishing the guilty, and his decisions are both morally just and activated by compassion. The politics of the Brady stories were moderate for the time. Brady has great sympathy for the “honest workingman,” and in a nod toward the subversive, anti-capitalist messages of other dime novel characters (see: The Deadwood Dick Adventures, The James Brothers Adventures), Brady sometimes helps poor workers against their corrupt bosses. But “Reds” and “anarchists” are often villains in the Brady stories, as are “radicals” who are willing to go on strike for better working conditions. In the Brady stories striking workers are always shown to have ulterior, evil motives.
The only interesting aspect of Old King Brady’s personality is that, when he ventures to the Western frontier in pursuit of the James brothers, he is always unable to capture them because of his moral inflexibility. In the Old King Brady stories the natives of the West “give singular importance to courage and manhood,” which the James brothers have in abundance. Brady most values right and wrong, which the natives of the West feel are secondary values, and they refuse to help Brady catch the James brothers.4 In some issues Brady is successful in capturing the James brothers, but they always escape by the end of the issue.
In time Brady fathers a son, Harry, who quickly grows into a strapping young man and joins his father in the family business, the Brady Detective Bureau “of Union Square, New York City.” Compressed time is one of the features of dime novel and story paper stories, so that a character can be an infant at the end of one story and a twenty-one-year-old man at the start of the next story. (This phenomenon can be seen in the Jack Harkaway [see: The Jack Harkaway Adventures] and Frank Reade [see: The Frank Reade Adventures] stories, among others). Harry, called “Young King Brady,” has all of his father’s abilities, including his extraordinary strength. Aside from the difference in age the pair look alike, and when they are not in disguise the two dress similarly; their trademark outfits are black fedoras, Prince Albert coats, and freshly-pressed trousers. (One story featured another son, Doctor Horace Brady, but by the next story Horace had disappeared). The two men are assisted by a third member of the detective agency, Alice Montgomery, an attractive amnesiac whose life Old King saves in New York’s Chinatown. Old King helps her regain her memory, reunites her with her father, and then hires her to work for the Brady Bureau. (She used to work in the Australian Secret Services and has a variety of skills useful to the Bradys). Young King and Alice became interested in each other and fell in love, but it was never explicitly stated that they married.
Print: E.F. Bleiler, ed. Eight Dime Novels: Old King Brady: Frank James: Nick Carter: Deadwood Dick: Buffalo Bill: The Steam Man: Frank Merriwell: Horatio Alger. New York: Dover, 1974.
1 Gary Hoppenstand, “Old King Brady,” in Gary Hoppenstand, ed., The Dime Novel Detective (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Press, 1982), 5
2 A New York Detective, “Old King Brady the Sleuth-Hound,” New York Dime Library no. 154 (Nov. 14, 1885): 2.
3 Hoppenstand, “Old King Brady,” 5.
4 Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 149.